BIG POND, N.S. – Wade Langham was making funeral arrangements for his mother, Rita MacNeil, last week when a handwritten note unexpectedly tumbled out of the beloved singer-songwriter’s will.
Turns out that MacNeil, who ran a tea room in her Cape Breton hometown until her death, wanted to leave her two grown children with a simple set of burial instructions — and one last chuckle.
“Upon my death, I would want to be cremated immediately, my ashes to be placed in my tea room teapot. Two, if necessary,” the light-hearted letter began.
On Monday, relatives, friends and fans packed a small Roman Catholic church overlooking Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lakes where — as per her wishes — MacNeil’s cremated remains sat in a white teapot alongside one of her many hats and a portrait of her.
MacNeil’s daughter Laura Lewis told those gathered at St. Mary’s church in Big Pond that she was overwhelmed by the sympathies that have been extended to her family after her mother’s death.
“What a legacy our mother has left for us. She was a very special mom. We loved her deeply and we will miss her deeply,” she said during a half hour service that featured prayers and MacNeil’s music.
“My mom loved to laugh and she had a wonderful sense of humour. She showed us that humour and laughter is a wonderful coping mechanism in hard times.”
MacNeil’s letter to her children, which Lewis read during the service, went on to request a party at the firehall next door to the church immediately following her funeral.
“Cash bar and music, so party on down,” Lewis read, prompting laughter from the people who had begun filling the church’s pews and upper balcony hours before the funeral got underway.
Though MacNeil’s dulcet tones garnered success abroad, she never strayed too far from Cape Breton.
Her presence on the island was felt in a variety of ways, ranging from her music to her popular tea room, which she opened in Big Pond in 1986. Langham said his mother wanted the business to continue operating after her death.
Rev. Joe Gillis said MacNeil touched the hearts of all who listened to her music.
“She was indeed the salt of the earth and she was the light of the world as well,” Gillis said.
“She travelled the world bringing the light of her giftedness to people everywhere and stirring up feelings of hope in people who needed to be uplifted.”
Premier Darrell Dexter, who was among those who attended the service, said he wanted to pay his respects to a great Nova Scotian who graced the world with her gift of music.
“Rita MacNeil is an iconic individual,” Dexter said. “It’s an opportunity to reflect on the tremendous gifts that Rita gave to the island and to the province and to the world.”
MacNeil worked for decades to become a beloved fixture in Canadian culture, with her greatest success coming after she was in her 40s.
Her powerful voice explored genres from country to folk to gospel as she became one of Cape Breton’s most acclaimed performers.
Langham, who had previously acted as his mother’s manager, said MacNeil’s charms were hard to deny, regardless of musical tastes.
“Rita touched people,” he said. “Whether you were a fan of her music or not, she really was remarkable.”
MacNeil won her first Juno Award in 1987 as Canada’s most promising female vocalist and went on to win the Juno for vocalist of the year in 1990 and country female vocalist of the year in 1991.
She died last Tuesday following complications from surgery after a recurring infection.